Astounded by Russia
I confess, I was very nervous about visiting Russia. Memories of Soviet era stories lingered in my mind, leaving a sense of unease. Latter stories about the political situation or the Mafia didn’t help either. Russia has had some bad press, hasn’t it! Yet, I wanted to see the art galleries in Russia so very much! So when my friend suggested doing a trip together, I raised Russia as an option. She reacted with enthusiasm but like me, was a bit wary. So, instead of setting off by ourselves, we decided to go with a package tour. The last time I went on one was 30 years ago, so I had my hesitation about this too…but it seemed the safer option. After doing a fair bit of research, we ended up with Cox and Kings package which included 3 days in Moscow and 4 in St Petersburg. We joined the tour directly in Moscow and extended the stay by one day in St Petersburg.
We flew into Moscow and out of St Petersburg. I considered taking the train to get to our hotel in Moscow but did not fancy dragging my suitcase up and down the Metro stairs. I found that Lingo Taxi had a good reputation and booked transfers via the internet. This worked perfectly; I was sent the driver name and car number the day before I travelled and we were met by an English speaking driver at the airport. In retrospect, this was a good decision because we did not find escalators in the Metro stations we used. Our pick up at St Petersburg went without a hitch as well. I am happy to recommend the services of Lingo Taxi.
Day 1, 4 Sept 2015
We arrived late afternoon; it was past 6 pm when we settled into our Hotel National. It is right across from Manezhnaya Square, just a minute away from the Red Square. The hotel is old fashioned but very nice. Breakfast was excellent. The location was just perfect, couldn’t be better!
This was the view from our breakfast table! There is a well-reputed Italian restaurant in the hotel with equally good views.
Manezhnaya and Revolution Squares
After settling in the hotel, we went to explore the squares just across from our hotel, both just outside Red Square. The Red Square was closed for Moscow’s 868th birthday celebrations. There was much activity in these squares with stalls selling local arts and crafts. A lot of police presence as well. I had downloaded the Yandex Translation App (free) before this holiday. The great advantage is that it works offline, with no roaming charges. It even speaks aloud!! I promptly tested my app on unsuspecting stall holders and even with the police; I got a lot of giggles and laughs, but it worked fine! I highly recommend this app if you travel in Russia as English is not spoken commonly. We saw that tickets were available for a Military Tattoo in the Red Square for the next night. I successfully used this translator to buy the tickets on the date we wanted!
Day 2, 5 Sept 2015
Poklonnaya Gora or Bow-Down Hill
A city tour was included in the package but it was a total wash out. Thanks to the Moscow city celebrations, the Red Square was closed and traffic disrupted. We were taken to some less important sights, such as the Poklonnaya Gora or Bow-down Hill and the cemetery. All this was also a wash out because of the rain. A great disappointment.
Cathedral of Christ The Saviour
The only good part of this morning was a visit to the Cathedral above. This is an impressive structure and quite beautiful inside (no pictures allowed). I was intrigued by how different it was from the many Cathedrals and churches I have seen in Europe. The original had been destroyed by Stalin in 1931; this church was built within an incredible 5 years (1995-2000) . It is an exact replica of the demolished Cathedral. There is a metro station very close by.
That afternoon, we made our own way to the Tretyakov Art gallery. The Metro was quite easy to manage on our own; the Yandex Metro app that I had downloaded was very useful. The other app. that I use extensively in all my travels is City Maps2Go. I download the map of the places we are visit before leaving home and mark all the places of interest, hotels etc. I use this to navigate when I am out and about. As it works offline using only the GPS in your smartphone for positioning, there are no roaming charges. An invaluable app! At the gallery I took the audio guide which was quite good. It took almost three hours to make our way through the gallery. I found the visit a great learning experience as I was not familiar with Russian artists. Some wonderful pieces of work here..loved it!
Day 3, 6 Sep 2015
Today was a free day in our itinerary. As we set off to explore, our way was blocked in all directions by barricades and stern policemen. It was so frustrating! We must have walked 30 mins to reach the Bolshoi theatre which is just a 5 min walk from Hotel National! The theatre looks very stately and impressive. I had tried to get tickets for a show online but it was shown as ‘sold out’. However, our guide procured tickets for some of the others in the group in the ‘black market’ with a grand mark-up! Quite a racket, to be sure!
Just getting to the Red Square was an adventure. We walked around in circles and tried many avenues until they finally opened the barricades at 11:30 am. Crowds just poured in! The square was taken up by the stalls for an equestrian performance and another for the Military Tattoo. So we didn’t really see the square in its glory. The red building above is the history museum which we did not have the time to visit.
Along one side of the Red Square is the Gum Department store. What a marvellous old building! We had lunch in a cafe inside; it was the worst sandwich I’ve ever eaten!
This is also in the Red Square but we couldn’t get near because of the barricades. I had expected something more grand…
St Basil’s Cathedral
This iconic Cathedral is so unusual and arresting! The exterior is very flamboyant and quite charming. After walking around and taking pictures from all possible angles, we went for a (paid) visit inside. It is essentially a museum. Some of the icon screens were very interesting to look at but otherwise I was rather disappointed with the interior.
Komsomolskaya Metro Station
After having heard much about the Metro Stations in Moscow, I had considered finding a guide to take us around. But then I like to do things on my own, so I did some research to find a good route to take. We visited (in order) Ploschad Revolutsii with some great sculptures, Arbatskaya with its beautiful ornamentation and chandeliers, Kievskaya with its amazing mosaics, Mayakovskaya with its stunning marble floor and strong columns, Novoslobodskaya with its wonderful stained glass artwork and finally to Komsomolskaya with its Baroque ceiling, marble columns and chandeliers. For the price of a Metro Ticket (50 Roubles), we spent a fun couple of hours visiting some of the most impressive stations. Warning : Lots of steps to climb up and down!
After dinner and a bit of rest, we set off excitedly to see the Military Tattoo, the tickets for which we had bought on the first day. The setting was quite extraordinarily impressive and so was the show! It was raining buckets but we were determined to sit it out. Unfortunately, my raincoat was not sufficient for the deluge; my jeans got soaked and water seeped up all the way to my waist. I was so wet, cold and miserable that I finally gave in and abandoned the show. The Muscovites are a hardy lot; except for some families with children who left, the stands were all full!
Day 4, 7 Sep 2015
This morning, we had an organised tour of the Kremlin which was very interesting. The Kremlin is a solid presence in the city; we had been seeing its walls every time we went out.
Four Seasons Fountain
This fountain was the first thing I noticed after we entered. What a marvellous sculpture!
The Russian Two-Headed eagle
I learnt that it signifies looking both at the East and the West..interesting…
The Cathedral Square
What an impressive square! The Golden domes seem to surround you in all sides!
We went inside only the Assumption Cathedral. The disadvantage of being in a tour is that you cannot quite wander at will so I did not get a peep inside the other Cathedrals. Photos were not allowed inside; this rather poor shot was taken before I realised it.
We also went inside the Armoury to see the simply jaw-dropping wealth of the Tsars. I’ve never seen anything quite like it…I was left quite speechless! Add this to your bucket list, its incredible.
This large square behind the Cathedrals is quite interesting. The Tsar’s Bell and the Tsar’s Cannon are both here. As is Putin’s office which is in the small yellow building in the distance above.
The formally laid out Kremlin gardens were beautiful with flower beds in bloom.
We exited by the Spasskaya Tower into the Red Square. I couldn’t resist taking pictures of the young guards who stood stiffly beside the gates!
That afternoon, we were bundled into a bus and taken to the train station to catch a fast train to St Petersburg. Until now I had not seen anything that I didn’t feel confident of doing by myself. But this, I would have found quite difficult. There is security to enter the platform. The train didn’t come until later but the porters knew where to stand for our carriage. The train was clean and comfortable but the food on board didn’t appeal. I wish I had carried a small picnic meal for myself..
We were met at the station and taken to our hotel. A converted palace, it has a rich and interesting history. There were plenty of public areas but unfortunately not much natural light inside. Our room was great, we faced the canal above. They provided excellent breakfast. Above all, the location is simply perfect! Even if you don’t stay here, choosing a nearby hotel will be a good idea.
Day 5, 8 Sept 2015
We had a very nice organised ‘City Tour’ this morning. After seeing some of the important squares of the city, we headed to the Port area for a little stop.
Peter and Paul Cathedral
Then we headed to the Peter and Paul fortress where the main attraction is the Cathedral. The interior of the Peter and Paul Cathedral is quite beautiful.A number of Tsars and Tsarinas are buried here.
The Saviour of the Spilled Blood
Our next stop was the iconic, exuberant church above. It was made to commemorate a Tsar killed by a terrorist (?) but it is nowhere near as sombre as the name suggests. Instead, it looks just joyous and flamboyant! I couldn’t help smiling when I saw it! The soaring lines, the myriad colours and the light streaming from the windows add to the joyous effect.
St Nicholas Naval Cathedral
Our last stop on today’s tour was at the Cathedral above. My mind was still reeling with the ‘blood cathedral’ ; on a sensory overload, I did not pay good attention to this Cathedral but I remember it being beautiful as well.
After some rest, we set off that evening to explore Nevsky Prospect, the busy and vibrant main arterial street of St Petersburg. We visited the Armenian Church, the Catholic Church and even made a quick foray into the Great Gostiny Dvor Departmental Store.
Day 6, 9 Sept 2015
The Palace Square
This was the day I was looking forward to from the very start..the day we get to visit the Winter Palace and the Hermitage. My very first sight of this beautiful square stunned me! I came back over the next couple of days and took many pictures in different light conditions.
The Winter Palace
What can I say about the magnificence of this palace? The decor is over the top- gold and incredibly beautiful stones, gilding and wood, plaster work and glass…it was all quite overwhelming!
The painting collection in the Hermitage (both buildings) is quite amazing. And then the richness of the objets d’art! As an art lover, I was in heaven! Our guide did an excellent tour of the Palace and the classical art. Most of the group went on an optional cruise but I chose to stay behind and drool over my favourites. There were also a number of rooms that the tour did not cover; I was determined not to miss a single room..
I was lucky that the impressionist gallery (separate ticket) was open till late. It is just across on the other side of the square. The collection is quite superb; don’t miss this! By the end of the day, I had spent 9 hrs. inside the museums; except for a 30 min lunch break, I had been on my feet all the time. I limped my way back to the hotel in a happy daze! I also came away with a heavy gallery book and a lovely necklace in Malachite to remind me of this amazing day!
Day 7, 10 Sept 2015
Today there was a whole day tour organized to visit Catherine’s Palace and Peterhof. It took us about an hour to get Pushkin (35 km). Catherine’s Palace was built in the 1700’s. It was commissioned by Catherine I as a summer palace; subsequently Elizabeth of Russia completely reconstructed it. Catherine II had parts of it redecorated. Damaged heavily during German occupation, restoration work continues to this day.
Catherine’s Palace Interiors
This was the richest palace I’ve ever seen! Quite amazing! The glitter and gold overtakes everything but if we put that aside, there was much else to admire. The famous Amber Room was quite astounding! Photos were not permitted in that room, check out it’s history in this article.
Catherine’s Palace Gardens
After seeing the riches of man-made objects, it was sheer pleasure to see the beauty of nature in the extensive gardens.
Known as the Russian Versailles due to the beautifully laid out gardens, Peterhof is about an hour’s drive (50 km) from St Petersburg. Built in the 1700’s by Peter the Great and then by Elizabeth of Russia, it was looted and destroyed during German occupation. The restoration work started immediately after the war and still continues. It is small compared to the other palaces we saw but still full of gilt and grandeur.
Peterhof Palace Gardens
The gardens and the fountains are especially beautiful. I was pleased to get my first glimpse of the Baltic sea from here! It took about 45 minutes to get back to town from here. The tour of the two palaces took almost the whole day.
After resting a while, we went out to see the Kazan Cathedral before having dinner. Another place of beauty; no dearth of them in St Petersburg. No photos were allowed inside.
Day 8, 11 Sept 2015
St Isaac’s Cathedral
I had added this extra day at the end of our trip to cover a couple extra museums or monuments. I had in fact wanted to see the Alexander Nevsky Monastery but my friend was not so enthusiastic. Instead, we took our guide book’s recommendation to see the exterior of the Summer Palace and gardens. It was a much longer walk than I expected and in the end, not a very interesting experience. I regret not having made it to the monastery.
We then walked back along the river to St Isaacs which was simply wonderful. I thought I had seen the best of Cathedrals in Russia already when we made our way to this one. I was wrong! The fourth biggest is the world, it is quite an amazing Cathedral.
St Isaac’s Interior
It is very beautifully proportioned and decorated with some stunning artwork. I was especially impressed by the mosaics. They were so detailed!
And the relief work on the huge doors was simply outstanding! Reminded me of the doors of the Baptistery in Florence…they were equally remarkable!
St Isaac’s Collonaded Walkway
We walked up to the colonnaded walkway on the roof. It’s a climb but not too hard. The excellent views are worth the effort.
We managed to get some time to look at the shops before returning to the hotel to get ready for the ballet performance (Le Corsair) at the Mikhailovsky theatre. I had bought the tickets at a very reasonable price at this site. It is all in Russian; I used the browser’s translate features to navigate through it. I was even able to see the seats we would get, which was great! I paid using a credit card online and collected the tickets in their office on the first day. It was all very easy, there is no need to pay black market prices. The ballet itself was simply superb! I am so glad we got to see it!
Day 9, 12 Sept 2015
We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast this morning and set out to the airport with plenty of time. This Russian holiday had been excellent, there had been so much to see! I definitely recommend it as a destination.